Multi-hyphenates in the hip-hop game are a dime a dozen. Writers produce, producers rap, rappers sell shoes. But no matter how many job titles fill the latest up-and-comer’s resume, the jack-of-all trades is still the master of none. On “Late Registration,” his second album, even Kanye West can’t escape the curse of the hip-hop overachiever: Beats that are passable but not outstanding, rhymes that intrigue but rarely inspire. “Registration,” may be one of the most buzz-heavy albums of the year, but it is weighed down by an all-encompassing smugness, a self-righteousness that drags down what could otherwise have been a diamond in the rough.
Though West made his career on producing hits for others, he touts a social consciousness over his beat-making prowess. But it is a dubious assertion. For one thing, his biggest hits (“Jesus Walks,” “All Falls Down”) rarely transcend sophomoric self-reflection. For another, few of his songs address tangible social issues (the exception being the remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” which illustrates a striking and gut-wrenching portrait of a corrupt system of human slavery). Instead, West’s lyrics are largely self-centered meditations on his own past, which are as egotistical as anything else on the radio, and often ultimately uninteresting. “Met her at a beauty salon/ With a baby Louis Vuitton/ Under her underarm.”
West does manage spin a few interesting yarns, like the tale of his grandmother’s illness and death in “Roses.” Yet mostly his flow is so emotionless, his storytelling so uncomplicated and straightforward, that the dominant reaction tends more towards apathy than anything else. His matter-of-fact raps neither paint a vivid picture nor engage the audience’s attention (especially if the audience isn’t watching MTV). It’s a shame, because it certainly feels like he has an interesting story to tell — if only he had a better ways to tell it or better beats to tell them over.
Perhaps the cadre of critics who idolize West simply appreciate his aversion to the usual lyrical diet of debauched sex and gratuitous violence. And indeed it is hard to argue when West is at his very best (“Drive Slow” here, and “We Don’t Care” and “Spaceship” from “Dropout”).
But most of the time, West’s glorious pride overshadows his musical talent. On “Diamonds,” he responds to his reputation for cockiness with more of the same. On “Bring Me Down” he raps: “Since ‘Pac passed away/ Most you rappers don’t deserve a track from me/ But everybody wanna run to me for their single.” This sort of arrogance may be nothing new in hip-hop (let alone rock ‘n’ roll), and perhaps it isn’t the worst thing in the world. But “Late Registration” doesn’t have enough dynamism, vocal wizardry or sonic pyrotechnics to make up for it.
Here he is little more than a competent rapper riding his own drum lines like a pro surfer. One has to credit West for making each track himself — albeit with help from indie-rock producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Elliott Smith), whose touch is difficult to ascertain. But West crafts beats that perfectly complement his somewhat flaccid flow, and as a result the tracks never reach into innovative territory or transcend the predictable.
On “Gold Digger,” the lyrically witty yet unremarkable first single, he weaves a classic blues hook through drums that percolate playfully but never achieve the hypnotic dynamism of a Scott Storch track, nor the off-the-wall creativity of a Timbaland concoction. He samples from the old school like it’s going out of style, but his samples often serve to hinder rather than supplement his creativity. For a short portion of “Gold Digger,” West cuts out the sample and shoots some vibrant electronic click-clacks through the speakers. All too soon, however, he reverts back to the wailing Ray Charles loop that, while initially appealing, grows a bit tired after its umpteenth repetition.
“Drive Slow,” featuring Houston rappers Paul Wall and GLC, is another intriguing but ultimately frustrating track. In terms of content, the song is a by-the-numbers thug-life vignette, extolling the thrills of fast women and pretty cars. The beat, however, is a fantastic example of West’s ability to artfully yet blatantly rehash the musical achievements of his forerunners — in this case, none other than Dr. Dre, whose tense yet slow-burning bass lines and trademark piano loops are almost exactly replicated on the song. West has been known to go out of his way to credit even the most obscure artists he samples, but doesn’t have the wherewithal to mention Dre’s name in the liner notes.
But perhaps the most aggravating track on the record is “Crack Music,” featuring the Game. The entire song essentially builds a drug metaphor out of rap music: To West it is crack cocaine, synthesized and packaged for a mass audience. (Common, another guest MC on the album, did a much better job on his classic “I Used to Love HER,” which turns hip-hop into an old lover.)
Despite West’s status as rapper-producer, his lyrics on “Registration” are rarely noteworthy, and his beats fall far below glorious. Disappointingly, this CD isn’t a narcotic; it’s simply as bland as a sugar pill.